SAN FRANCISCO — This is a city that takes nostalgia seriously--where Victorian houses are meticulously cared for and freeways are knocked down to restore waterfront views.
So it was with great relief this week that San Francisco averted a civic tragedy even more serious than losing the Giants to Florida.
The city saved its foghorns.
Not just any foghorns. These were the mellifluous, deep-toned signals that once resonated across San Francisco Bay whenever fog rolled through the Golden Gate. Audible in many neighborhoods, they were long a part of the city's identity--the "essence of San Francisco," as one politician said.
But in the name of progress earlier this month, Coast Guard technicians sailed out to Alcatraz and unplugged the last of their aging, romanticized foghorns. In its place, they installed a signal with a high-pitched electronic beep that is about as soothing as a car alarm.
Longtime residents who found the old sound comforting came unglued. Local historians denounced the heresy. Civic leaders pledged to win back the horns. The Board of Supervisors passed a resolution. And radio station KFOG, which uses the bellow of a foghorn to identify itself, pledged to help raise money.
"As a native San Franciscan, I was dismayed by the decision to remove the old foghorns," said Mayor Frank Jordan. "The city really loses something when we don't fight to keep those things that are truly San Francisco."
After three weeks and countless phone calls, the Coast Guard agreed on a compromise that would allow a nonprofit group, the U.S. Lighthouse Society, to operate two or three of the old-time foghorns--as long as the group pays the cost.
"We are more than willing to license at least one of the fog signals to a non-federal entity," said Coast Guard Lt. Daniel Mincher. "We are fully interested in seeing the ambience and tradition of the foghorn in San Francisco Bay continuing."
Details have yet to be worked out, but Wayne Wheeler, president of the San Francisco-based society, said he hopes to install at least two horns on Alcatraz in the middle of the bay, where their sound would carry far and wide.
"We want to keep San Francisco sounding like it should," said Wheeler, who spent 23 years in the Coast Guard and, incidentally, does expert foghorn imitations.
Once there were more than 50 of the old-style diaphragm foghorns around the bay. Each had its own tone and together they produced a cacophony along the waterfront.
On cold, foggy nights, the mournful lowing of the horns evoked images of Sam Spade walking the streets, of ships steaming into port from far-off lands, of a simpler time when San Francisco was a major maritime city.
But in recent years, the foghorns have become little more than noisy reminders of the past. Radar, sonar, depth finders and a variety of other gadgets have become more affordable and precise methods of keeping mariners from dashing their vessels onto the rocks.
Gradually, all but one of the old Coast Guard foghorns had been disconnected and replaced with the new beepers. But most San Franciscans were unaware of the change because they continued to hear the bellow of the Alcatraz horn.
When the Coast Guard disconnected that last foghorn Nov. 2, it triggered an identity crisis in San Francisco.
"We were down to the last one," Wheeler said, "and the hue and cry ensued from that."
Already plagued with a nagging feeling that their city is not what it used to be, longtime residents saw the loss as yet another blow to the city. To many San Franciscans, the historic sound was as important a symbol as Coit Tower or sourdough bread.
"Where I live, I hear them and I just love them," said Carol Kiser, a National Park Service ranger who has lived in the city for more than a decade. "I think San Francisco would be losing a lot if they get rid of the foghorns. It would be like getting rid of the cable cars."
State Sen. Quentin Kopp (I-San Francisco), who helped lead efforts to save the foghorns, agreed: "It's an indispensable part of San Francisco lore and part of the quality of life of San Francisco."
Upgrading of the foghorns is part of a constant evolution in the effort to warn mariners of the hazardous rocks outside the Golden Gate and in San Francisco Bay.
The first fog signal was set up in 1857--a cannon fired every half hour on foggy days outside the entrance to the bay. The system worked fine until the fog lasted for three days straight and the poor fellow assigned to fire the cannon quit in exhaustion.
Later, a giant bell, an air siren, and the early two-tone diaphone did duty on the bay. The familiar single-tone diaphragm foghorn was introduced in the 1930s.
Wheeler acknowledged that these days the old-style foghorn is "purely aesthetic" and may even give some sailors a false sense of security. "The mariner doesn't need them," he said.
But history does, at least in San Francisco.
"Only in San Francisco could you have a battle like this," said Pat Flanagan, chairman of the city's Maritime Historic Park. "In other cities, nobody would even notice the passing of this. It's maintaining the history and the heritage of San Francisco."